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Stephen is a web developer, Bahá'í, and interfaith activist in St. Paul, Minnesota. He likes to write about religion, social justice, sustainability, science, programming, &c.

poetry, prose, and other strings of words · 1993 - 2003

The Solar Metaphor

April 23, 1999

Anthropology 301

1. Introduction

In every culture, commonly understood concepts are used as metaphors for describing less well-understood ideas. We use the brain, for instance, as a metaphor for describing the function of the nucleus in a living cell. Some metaphors are used to describe many different concepts at the same time, and each culture has her own sets of universal metaphors. Comprehending these metaphors can give essential insights into a culture. In American culture, war and money are two oft-cited metaphors. The sun and its actions serves as yet another key metaphor for describing the reality around us. Within science, we extend the idea of planets orbiting the sun to electrons orbiting a nucleus, and in intrapersonal relations, we speak of people as thinking that the world revolves around them. In these areas and others, the sun metaphor conveys a certain level of information about the subjects, but also brings about fallacious thinking. This paper endeavors to explain the sun as metaphor, to show why it is so important, and to describe some of the fallacies it helps to engender.

2. The Metaphor Defined

At its most basic level, a metaphor is simply a comparison of two objects by equation. For instance, one might say, "she is a deer" in order to compare some woman to a deer. It is not to say that the woman is literally a deer, with hooves, a brown pelt and antlers—but the metaphor is used rather as an intellectual symbol to convey certain meanings, meanings that are often difficult to understand without some standards with which to compare them. We often think of deer being swift, nimble-footed, and shy of strangers, so this banal metaphor of ours is intended to relay the idea that the woman is also swift, nimble, and shy.

Instead of saying that the woman is a deer, we could have simply stated that she is like a deer—that is, we could have used a simile instead of a metaphor. In many cases, however, there are subtle ideas that the metaphor brings by extension to the subject. When the metaphor is intended to bring a whole wealth of ideas to bear on the issue at hand, more than just simply comparing two objects, we often call this loaded idea an extended metaphor.

We often use an extended metaphor when comparing two vastly different ideas, as we shall see with the examples outlined below. For the time being, let us think of the common example of "time is money." Here we have what are, to all intents and purposes, two very different concepts. But when we speak of time with an economic metaphor, we introduce the idea of time being something that can be saved up or squandered, something that can be given or a thing to be sold. From a vastly different domain of thought, we spell out a certain conception of time that is common in American culture.

Social scientists speak of some metaphors as being key metaphors. These metaphors, specific to particular cultures, are pervasive throughout the language and societal interactions. Typically, these metaphors come from diverse arenas in which that culture has a high stake. In the United States, money, war, and disease are three of the largest of these metaphors, as they are used extensively in describing other aspects of life or even each other. These "things," the social scientist would claim, are high in the consciousness of Americans—they are concepts whose importance any native speaker would recognize. Therefore, the direct or indirect comparison of an idea from another area to one of these metaphors would allow for better comprehension and emphasis on the subject’s importance.

While the metaphor can be of extreme usefulness in relaying information about a subject, it can also bring about fallacious thinking when it is over-extended or used without clear boundaries. Let us return to the statement "she is a deer." The inexperienced speaker, not used to this type of symbolism, may not recognize the standard English limits to this equation, and the comparison may be thought to extend even to the color of the skin. Though this particular example seems a bit incredulous, the consequences can easily be applied too much more meaningful errors. Even within English, the limits are not strictly clear. It is often that a speaker will intend to compare only a subset of the entire domain of characteristics, whereas the listener’s interpretation may represent a different subset. Perhaps I set out only to highlight the woman’s quickness of foot, and my audience falls into the trap of believing that she is shy as a deer as well, though unbeknownst to them she is of a garrulous sort. Conversely, I may be speaking of shyness as well, but this part of the comparison may not be evident to the audience. Thus the metaphor can fallaciously be taken as far more literal than intended, as signifying the wrong characteristic, or it simply may not be clear enough to be fully understood.

3. The Sun as Metaphor

Throughout history, mankind has no doubt recognized the importance of the sun for our lives. From the earliest of days, man would have noticed the warmth and light missing during the night, during the time when the sun had started his journey back to the East via the underside of the world (or so Greek mythology had it). Most likely, every major ancient culture’s mythology included an important role for the sun, and its significance has never been lost on us. Even today, though our society no longer outwardly worships the sun, its importance has only slightly waned. The metaphor of the sun is replete in our literature, finding roles in works by authors such as Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, and Anne Rice, to name a few. Phrases such as "sun shines out of his behind" and "aglow with the sun’s radiance" allude to the central importance and brilliance of the sun. But its symbolism as a totem of goodness, as the source of our energy and the light by which we see, and as the most dominating of celestial objects is reflected not only in everyday speech patterns and literature, but also in its use as an extended metaphor for describing different concepts. Two such concepts are the Bohr model of the atom and human egocentrism, which use the sun and solar movements to describe two vastly different situations.

3.1 The Bohr Model

[image of the Bohr heliocentric model]Shortly after the discovery of the atomic nucleus and, separately, of the electron, physicists began looking for ways to describe the interaction of the two and to develop a complimentary theory, whose results would explain heretofore unexplainable natural phenomena. After many years of trying, Danish physicist Niels Bohr developed a brilliant solution, making use of the fledgling idea of energy quantization and a planetary model to explain atomic behavior. Briefly, Bohr concluded that the atomic nucleus was like the sun, with electrons orbiting around it in circular trajectories. His model had wonderful predictive power and was quickly accepted by most scientists. The solar comparison made it possible for anyone to gain a picture of what the atom—which is too small to be seen with a microscope—actually looks like, and gave a good idea of the relative sizes of the electron and nucleus when comparing, say, the Earth to the Sun.

Nevertheless, though the metaphor served a useful purpose, it fostered already-present misunderstandings and helped to engender new ones. People who believed in the Bohr model also believed that, like planetary orbitals around the sun, electron orbits about the nucleus could be precisely calculated and predicted. There are two misconceptions brought in when the metaphor is taken this far: there is an implication that the electron remains a constant distance away from the nucleus and that there are well defined orbits that make a complete loop about the nucleus-sun. It turns out that, as far as we currently know, any one electron can be anywhere in an atom, but is most likely to be within certain defined "orbits" (you shall see why the quotes in a moment); it is highly unlikely to be on the "outside" of the atom or in the middle, where the nucleus is. As for the orbits: they are even more of a myth. You see, the regions in which electrons are probabilistically found aren’t even spherical—they have weird balloon or dumbbell shapes instead. Looking at the picture above, one might also be tempted to attribute the last electron path as an atomic boundary. However, with the considerations above, we can see that there can be no real edge to the atom. It just spreads out until it is so thin that it basically isn’t there. Our notion of the atom as planets circling around the sun—whose actions are known to us all from our daily lives—constrains our thinking and leads to false reasoning.

3.2 Human Egocentrism

Another example in which the sun plays the role of extended metaphor is that of the human ego, or more specifically, human egotism. Another common turn of phrase not mentioned above is, "she thinks the world revolves around her." This phrase seems clear enough on the surface, but once one takes a second look one sees the depth of the analogy being drawn. The comparison is a direct comparison of the subject, "she", with the sun, around which her followers supposedly orbit as "planets". This is a trait of egotism, or arrogance. Interestingly, this description of overbearing pride mirrors an ancient conception of stellar motion, namely, the geocentric model.

Until the last few hundred years, nearly all Western scientists and philosophers believed that the Earth was the center of the universe, though without any real evidence to back the claim up. This was mankind’s social arrogance in thinking that we were unique, special, and that the world was built solely for our own well-being. Likewise, mankind’s individual arrogance is described as been self-centered or egocentric. When a man reaches this stage, he has held his own worth too high and thinks—erroneously—that the world around him was made for him, or at the least is lower than him. This is the position of the sun, though I should perhaps call it the fallacy of the sun instead.

4. Conclusions

So we see that the sun occupies an exalted role in the minds of this culture and is consequently present in numerous forms of metaphor. Though it may not today be as pervasive a symbol as money or disease, it still plays the part of a key metaphor, describing characteristics from the urbane ("a glowing face") to the abstruse (the Bohr model). Furthermore, phrases and deeper ideas such as human egocentrism use the importance of the sun and the planets orbiting as symbols of mankind’s fallacious sense of importance. Like all metaphors, the solar one takes a universally understood concept and bends it to the description of a more difficult idea. While it does aid in understanding the idea at hand, the many burdens of a metaphor also come with it, bringing misunderstandings and constraints when carried too far.




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